In a Beijing complex with the Orwellian name Freedom City, I visited dissident Hu Jia on Dec. 20. He and wife Zeng Jinyan seemed upbeat, still euphoric over the birth of their daughter Qianci in November. The couple thought the infant's arrival had won them some breathing room, since the guards usually stationed inside their apartment building now seemed less obtrusive. "Maybe the birth of our baby gave them a dose of morality," said Hu, 34, eyes twinkling wryly.
Pouring me a cup of tea, he described how security personnel had kept him and Zeng, also an activist and blogger, under de facto house arrest for more than 200 days. The agents congregated in the hallways or lounged on makeshift plywood cots perched on the cramped stairway landings leading to Hu's fourth-floor apartment. "They would be chain-smoking or playing cards or sleeping. It was like an airport waiting room. My poor neighbors!" (Hu had also been detained and held incommunicado for 41 days in early 2006, during which time Zeng blogged about their plight.) But on that wintry afternoon his captors were nowhere to be seen as I trudged upstairs with a photographer. Hu and Zeng introduced me to Qianci, tousle-haired and sleepy, while posing for photographs. He speculated, "If it weren't for the Olympics I'd be behind bars now."
A week later, he was.
On Dec. 27, Hu was at his computer when two dozen police officers swiftly entered the apartment and hustled him away, confiscating laptops, cell phones, books and bank cards. My visit was apparently the last time Hu and Zeng were interviewed face-to-face and photographed by foreign media before his arrest.
Hu and Zeng are a special breed of Chinese activist. Unlike some, they have embraced an unusually diverse range of political causes. Beginning in 1996, Hu's early activism focused on the threat of desertification and China's fragile ecosystems, especially in Tibet, where he supported tree-planting campaigns and protection of the endangered Tibetan antelope, or chiru. A vegetarian, Hu is best known for founding the HIV/AIDS support group Loving Source. He met Zeng when they were volunteers working on HIV/AIDS issues.
Through e-mail and Internet phone services such as Skype, Hu and Zeng networked with human-rights activists across a wide spectrum. Freedom of the press. Legal and civil rights. Assisting victims of forced evictions and rural land-grabs brought on by China's tsunami of demolition and redevelopment. Hu's moment of awakening was the carnage of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on prodemocracy protesters. "I nearly went crazy, asking, 'How could this happen?'" he told me. "That's when I turned to Buddhism, which opposes all killing."
On Jan. 30 his family learned of the formal charges against Hu: "inciting subversion of state power," often used as a catch-all accusation leveled against Chinese dissidents who lobby for greater human rights. His arrest, little more than seven months before the 2008 Summer Olympics, has made Hu a high-profile poster boy for critics lobbying Beijing to clean up its patchy human-rights record before the games.
Hu's jailing is seen as part of Beijing's pre-emptive crackdown on activists who might tarnish China's image during the August Olympics. A month before he was grabbed, Hu spoke via Webcam to a European Parliament committee and reportedly criticized Beijing's human-rights lapses and Beijing Games organizers. "The action taken against Hu Jia cannot escape being connected to the Olympics," stated the San Francisco-based NGO Dui Hua Foundation, which lobbies on behalf of Chinese political prisoners. "From the perspective of the authorities, the opportunity to take this high-profile rights activist out of action in the final months before the Olympics may have been too good to pass up."
Hu's international supporters have protested his arrest. The European parliament passed a resolution demanding Hu's release, while American officials have raised the case with Chinese authorities, calling his arrest "disturbing." Given the depth of his international support, Dui Hua says the jailing "creates a huge image problem for the Chinese government, as Hu Jia is likely to remain behind bars through the Olympic Games—possibly without even having a chance to see a lawyer."
Hu, who suffers from cirrhosis of the liver, faces the possibility of a harsh prison sentence, possibly even death. Since his detention Zeng and Qianci have been under house arrest, their phone and Internet connections severed. Guards bar visitors, including foreign media, from entering their apartment building. Two-month-old Qianci is "effectively the world's youngest political prisoner," declared a statement by Reporters Without Borders.
Hu and Zeng were unique in other ways. Having studied computer science, he was one of China's most tech-savvy dissidents. Through e-mail, Web sites, Skype and mobile-phone text messaging, they disseminated news, photographs, and audio and visual files related to the dissident scene in China. During my visit Zeng quickly cut and handed me a CD of their documentary titled "Prisoners in Freedom City," about the family's experience under illegal house arrest. Throughout my visit several mobile phones rang constantly, and Hu chatted with various like-minded colleagues.
In cyberspace—and even in real life—Hu and Zeng were the focal point of a sort of salon for Chinese activists. They sheltered Yuan Weijing, the wife of imprisoned Shandong activist Chen Guangcheng, in their apartment when she traveled to Beijing last year in a failed attempt to fly to Manila and accept the prestigious Magsaysay Award on behalf of her husband. (Chen is a rural legal activist who exposed abuses in Shandong; he was the subject of a 2002 Newsweek International cover story on "barefoot lawyers.") Hu used the Web to publicize recordings of dissidents' interviews and, in one instance, Yuan's screams as she was violently pushed off a bus by authorities.
The thing that impressed me most during that visit, however, was the couple's religious faith. Both Buddhists, Hu and Zeng admired the pacifism of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader—who has been branded a separatist by the Beijing regime. They were thrilled that, through intermediaries, the Dalai Lama had chosen a Tibetan name for Qianci. "As soon as I can, I'll record her Buddhist name as well as her Chinese name on my daughter's household registration card," said Hu, whose slim build and austere haircut give him a monkish aura.
Before leaving the couple's apartment, while Hu took yet another phone call, I pored over the activist paraphernalia on their walls and shelves. The image of a Tibetan antelope and a black-and-white photo of the Dalai Lama. Red HIV/AIDS ribbons. Five tiny photos of Chen Guangcheng. A pin commemorating "the black church's week of prayer." A photograph of Hu Jia standing in front of a commemorative image of the late Communist Party head Zhao Ziyang—who was purged during the 1989 unrest for sympathizing with the protesters—taken during the memorial ceremony at Zhao's home after his death.
Another sip of tea, then I slipped out of their building. Still no guards around. By the time I reached my office, Hu had already sent me a couple of messages from the e-mail account freebornchina. Now Chinese dissidents are agitating for justice in Hu's case, just as he has done for so many others. Beijing human-rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who lost both legs during the Tiananmen bloodshed, posted an open online letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, calling Hu Jia "the conscience of modern China." I wonder when, or if, I'll ever hear from him again.